Is A Dine On Demand Concept In Business Class Realistic For All Airlines?

Filed Under: Advice

A couple of days ago I wrote about how Cathay Pacific is testing out some improvements to their business class experience, including introducing mattress pads and dine on demand in business class. Initially they’re rolling these out as trials on flights to Chicago and London Gatwick, with the hopes of expanding them to all longhaul flights in the future.

However, apparently the feedback for the dine on demand has been awful… from the cabin crew. No matter what service concept an airline implements, I think the key is that they do so consistently. A service that only works well on half of flights just isn’t worth much, since it doesn’t help manage the expectations of customers, and inevitably leads to disappointment.

So it got me thinking, are Cathay Pacific cabin crew just “lazy,” or is dine on demand not a realistic service expectation in business class?

The more thought I put into it, the more I question the merits of a dine on demand concept (certainly Cathay Pacific cabin crew aren’t lazy). The way I see it, there are a few different airline service concepts when it comes to business class dining:

  • There’s the assembly line approach, where the crew comes through with carts, the service isn’t at all personalized, and you feel like you’re just part of the process (similar to Cathay Pacific’s current service)
  • Slightly better is when airlines don’t use carts, and instead flight attendants bring stuff to you directly on a tray, as it doesn’t block the aisles, and feels a bit more personalized (similar to Emirates’ current service)
  • Even more I prefer when there’s a single flight attendant dedicated to a small area, and they just have to look after 8-12 passengers; as you develop more of a relationship with the flight attendant, service is more personalized, etc. (this is something Lufthansa implemented not too long ago, and it’s quite effective)
  • Then there’s dine on demand, where you can eat what you want when you want (like Etihad and Qatar)

Cathay Pacific’s current “assembly line” service

Even within those categories you have quite a bit of variance. For example, some airlines bring you an entire tray that they plop down in front of you.

Etihad’s current dine on demand concept

Other airlines offer more of a restaurant-style experience, and place everything directly on your tablecloth.

Qatar’s current dine on demand concept

Of course I love when an airline has dine on demand and sets everything directly on your tablecloth. This is what Qatar Airways does, and it’s a great experience… when done correctly. The problem is that sometimes it’s not.

For example, recently I took four Qatar Airways business class flights:

  • On two of the flights, the dine on demand concept was executed flawlessly
  • On one of the flights the service was awful, and the crew was visibly stressed to the point that I felt bad asking them for anything, as they were so frazzled
  • On one of the flights the crew was good, but because of the dine on demand concept everything was really drawn out, and they weren’t as quick as they should have been

Dine on demand is a lot of work. Rather than putting everything in the oven at once and then being done with the service, you work nonstop. The oven is constantly on. You have to keep track of 50 different service flows, rather than the same service flow throughout the cabin. Even from a passenger’s perspective, dine on demand doesn’t come without some downside — if you do want to sleep, the constant noise, light, and smell of food being served the entire flight can cause some people to lose sleep.

I might be contradicting myself here, but I think that dine on demand isn’t for all airlines. Airlines need to have good morale, a good cabin crew to passenger ratio, and motivated and engaged flight attendants to make it work. And even then, it’s really hard work.

Maybe a formal dine on demand program isn’t a great idea for all airlines, though there’s certainly some middle ground:

  • Introduce a more substantial snack menu for passengers who miss the meal
  • Rather than offering a full-on dine on demand, maybe just offer an express meal option for those who miss the main meal services, which at least alleviates some of the workload of bringing out separate courses
  • In the case of Cathay Pacific, at least adopt Lufthansa’s model of having one flight attendant for each little section, and do the service without carts, so it feels a bit less like an assembly line

What do you guys think? Are some airlines better off not offering dine on demand? Is there a happy medium?

  1. In my experiences QR and EY do it well, particularly if pax don’t ask for all their meals at the same times. I never ask for a meal straight after takeoff because they are always running around doing a million things. If you ask for a meal a few hours into the flight you will probably get much better service. In those regards it should be easier for crew because they don’t have to serve everyone at once.
    I do feel for the crew sometimes on these airlines because the service procedures are so ridiculously involved.
    I think with the right training, crew attitude and simplified service procedures it can be done properly by any airline.
    Lucky you didn’t explain why CX crew were complaining – do they not want to do it or they want to do it but it hasn’t been working properly?

  2. Dine on demand is great when well executed. But I appreciate when airline crews can be flexible with meal service. For example, when you fall asleep during meal time. JAL does this really well. On the other hand, on a recent Swiss flight, the crew basically told me I was out of luck.

  3. I really like Aeroflot’s approach in business class (both you and Tiffany experienced that). One flight attendant took care of me, every dish arrived separately and almost immediately after I finished the previous dish. It was a very personalized service.

  4. East Coast US to Europe should not even serve dinner in Business class. They should provide a way for everyone to eat a meal on the ground and then let them sleep in the air.

  5. I don’t think most customers are that fussy. When flying business class, people want
    1) Comfortable, lie flat seat
    2) Working, quality entertainment system and wifi
    3) A wide variety of beverages, including alcohol
    4) Healthy, fresh food with enough variety to suit different tastes
    5) Attentive enough service
    6) Extras like amenity kits, snacks, etc

    In terms of food, the crew should be able to deliver 3/4 with the most efficiency and least fuss. Dine on demand seems overkill for most business class and is prone to inconsistency, errors, etc. Let customers choose from wide variety of meals before the flights (including salads, fruit/cheese plates, etc) and serve them from trays.

  6. Been flying a lot of CX lately and the business class service is really bottom of the barrel. Very assembly line and the quality of the food is absolutely horrible. Wish I could send a picture of the food trolly with all of the entrees on it. Not to mention the staff are mostly just going thru the motions.

    When the ISM came and greeted me and asked for my opinions, I gave it to her directly in a polite way. She all but said she agreed with me, and that CX has made significant cut backs. She then avoided me the rest of the flight.

    I have 5-6 paid J SFO – BLR trips in the next year. Going forward tying to decide between staying with CX, going to SQ, or trying EK? Or should I split it around? I don’t have enough to get top tier status on 2 airlines, so thinking of leaving it all on one? Or isn’t the top tier status all that important when flying paid J. Currently Executive Platinum on American. Be interesting to hear peoples opinions.

  7. Definitely supporting the dine on demand option. Enjoyed it when I flew with my 2 yr old, so I can let her eat first then she can take a nap/sleep after the meal and I can enjoy my hot meal with champagne and wine later. Makes it a more relaxing non stressful flight for me. I know the FA made it a point to find out when will you prefer it it, it will be easier for their planning and I totally understand and agree. By roughly knowing when the customers will want their meal, they can better manage and give better service. Even if some other passengers changed their mind on the time of the meal, best to let them know of the change so they can know when to start preparing.

  8. Trying to sleep with all of that clanking silverware on china is irritating. As is all of the chatter between the FA and the diner, the extra foot traffic, and the constant smell of food. If you opt skip the main meal service, I wish they’d bring you an express service (all on one plate) and give you nice, well-designed PLASTIC utensils so there wouldn’t be all of that clanking.

  9. I greatly prefer the assembly line. If I’m not hungry at the time food is served, I won’t die from not eating a huge meal for 8 hours.

    The assembly line means waaaaaaaay less cabin noise for the duration of the flight. Many fewer footsteps up and down the aisle, significantly less galley noise, and less clanging of silverware and dishes from fellow passengers.

    I’m cheap and hate paying for a meal in an airport and I love having a good meal on a long flight, but I really really like waking up refreshed after a good nap on a long flight.

  10. I guess it would depend on how it was executed. If the lights stayed on the whole flight along with the galley noise, and carts moving back and forth down the aisles I would be hating it. Frankly, I’m happy with conventional meal service as long as the timing is right – I hate waiting two or three hours into a nine hour flight (my usual TATL route) for the meal – I’m anxious to dine and then get some decent sleep.

  11. What the “on demand” part is done like a cafeteria: you can order what you want through the in flight entertainment system, get notified when it’s ready, and then trot up to the galley to get your eats.

    That gives everyone some selection and flexibility, but you don’t have to flag down an attendant to place an order, or to get served. It lowers the stress on the attendants, as they can see orders as they come in, and prepare them without leaving the galley.

  12. I rather airlines not try to offer Dine-on-Demand if they’re understaffed, just to check off another box on the list of amenities they offer. It wears out the crew unnecessarily and affects the overall quality of service.

    As for CX specifically, management needs to step up their game. All you see on CX Secrets these days are complaints from crew about poor crew-to-pax ratios, lack of rest before turning around for long hauls, and offering these ridiculous new initiatives (dine on demand, turndown) while being understaffed.

  13. @Jack I’ll not choose for you but let me outline your choices: go for SQ, and you’ll run 17+hour flights on winter flights out of SFO, scoring the widest business seats in the sky, Book the Cook, but sleep at an angle. Consistently professional crew. I don’t know how much it is you spend on 5-6 J return trips running SFO-SIN-BLR, but it could potentially give you PPS Club status in the long run, even Solitaire PPS?

    As for EK, you’ll get the 2-3-2 config between DXB and BLR (which isn’t bad for short flights), crew may be inconsistent, but prices are lower, and you’ll get between the two cities faster. I don’t know much about Skywards but I know enough that I turned it down in favour of another FFP.

    Hope this helps

  14. Seems logical to me for long haul flights – offer a limited number of different service times – say three for example, (1) straight after take off, (2) a few hours into the flight and (3) many hours into the flight. This creates “the much needed flow” and a version of “dine on demand” thus easing crew stress and giving customers flexibility. A win win all ways round…..

  15. I recently flew CX on both short haul and long haul J. I found the “assembly line” process perfectly fine. I found if you interact with the crew and start a conversation at the beginning of the service, you typically develop a personalised experience. If you don’t put it out your not going to get it back. That said I do agree that dine on demand is sometimes better.
    I did ask the crew on their thoughts on the CX dine on demand and they all hate it. They say they’re overworked and get no rest, which diminishes the quality of the service.

  16. Dine in demand means you run out of food. Happens on Qatar. Etihad is known for it.

    Also business class are not that special. Most of the time you have no choice which airline you fly, so stop being a brat. Airline should invest in the relationship with the company instead of the employee. I am 100% sure the employee will fly whichever airline they are told even if don’t go through the motions of caring of what they think.

  17. Flew DOH-JFK on QR 701 in business earlier this month, and I thought the “dine on demand” worked well for such a long flight ~14hours

  18. In HIA right now… just did 16 hrs LAX-DOH on Qatar. Love the on demand option but looks like selection is reduced from before which should help on cost and efficiency. I ordered the exact same meal for both my dinner and breakfast. Very consistent in quality and service. I didn’t experience excessive noise from FA, galley or silverware throughout the night. My vote goes to QR’s A La Carte Service but SQ’s Book the Cook selection.

  19. I guess it’s just not realistic to implement for scale in Business Class numbers, especially when crew complement for the cabin is limited…

  20. Dine on demand worked fine for me on Qatar. Haven’t flown Cathay in a few years, last time on a JFK-HKG nighttime nonstop they had a couple of nice hot dishes available as snacks any time during the flight. That concept worked pretty well too, but most people were trying to sleep anyway.

  21. I like love QR but I agree with Brian – on my last flight from DOH-IAH everyone was eating at different times so I constantly heard the “clinking” of silverware and plates.

  22. I think DoD should be the privilege of first class and not business. I’d expect much more efficiency in business class maximizing the sleep time.

    Sometimes the “assembly line” style can also be good if you have a buffet style choices in appetizer/dessert i.e. Austrian and Turkish (though the latter has eliminated the appetizer buffet).

  23. I love Igor’s idea of an IFE- based “take out” approach. Though it should only be applied to smaller portions as theres some unacceptable pax-on-pax spillage risk there.

    Personally I’m only ever in intl business or first on vacation. Food is no biggie but I do enjoy getting some g&t’s on demand.

  24. To answer the question in the headline: if one airline can do it they can all do it…it just depends on how committed they are to doing it and what resources they’re prepared to throw at it.

    Taking Cathay Pacific as a specific example I’m not convinced that their crews aren’t being lazy – on my last 3 Cathay BC flights I’ve been less than impressed with the service and I’m starting to wonder if the airline is trading on its name

  25. I refuse to take any 5+ hours flight without dine on demand, I think it’s not humane to force people to eat at specific time or go hungry until the next meal time like what Emirates do on Dubai-US flights.

  26. Cafeteria based set ups on a plane are a lawyers wet dream. One soup spilt = ridiculous levels of negative PR for a company.
    I often wonder if Dine on Demand is not something more bloggers are concerned with rather than pax travelling on business.

  27. I think there are two main factors at play here:

    1) the crew:passenger ratio.
    On long range flights ‘horizontal rest’ is a legal requirement for cabin crew. So this usually begins after the first main meal service where half the crew will trot off to the cabin crew bunks and have their rest. Then come back and the other half will go. Then everyone is back for the main second service.

    My last flight with QR was DOH-MEL on a 777-300. This aircraft is configured with 42 seats in Business Class. I asked the guys serving me how many crew they have in J class – EIGHT. Which is a LOT. CX on their A350 with 38 J seats has 5 crew. BA on their 777 with 48 J class seats has 4-5 crew. Divide those numbers in two and the crew left on duty to tend to ‘dine on demand’ requests in between services is pretty low on airlines with a ‘normal’ complement of crew. In between services there are other duties the cabin crew are required to do: cabin/bathroom patrols, serving of the flight deck, setting up for the next main service, customs paperwork, some preps for the next crew on the return flight, ad hoc drink requests etc. So with only two on duty I can imagine it is hardly a seamless service once Dine on Demand is thrown in.

    2) The seat.

    As a passenger, I am not a fan of Dine on Demand – I generally find it disturbing. I’m generally like 80% of passengers on night flights – I get on, eat with the main meals and sleep in the middle. Or try to. I find Dine on Demand can hinder this. An example being again Qatar MEL-DOH where the seats are conventional 2x2x2. My seatmate decided he would fave his full on meal in the middle of the flight when the cabin was dark and quiet. I became aware of all the movement and activity and noise. I found it a pain in the a*s. I came back on the A380 ex SYD and the 1-2-1 seating slightly alleviates the disturbance from a seatmate wanting a mid flight feast.

    I generally prefer what Qantas offers – two main meal services with substantial snacks (toasted sandwiches etc) in between if you don’t want to eat during the main meal or get hungry later on. They are quick and easy to prepare for the crew and aren’t disturbing for other passengers – QR go through the whole motions of laying up a table etc in the middle of a night flight for Dine on Demand. I wish they would just service it on a tray prepared in the galley.

  28. @ Mohammed – ‘not humane to force people to eat at certain times’? So should we extend Dine on Demand to 400 punters in Y class on a 380 as well???

    We have to be realistic here. These are AIRCRAFT. Not flying restaurants. The logistics and practicalities need to be taken into consideration.

  29. I use the “Express dining” option a lot on United when flying EWR to MAN. It’s usually a short 6-6.5 hour flight and they bring everything out on one tray instead of serving one at a time. It allows me to catch a few extra zzz’s on such a short trans-Atlantic flight. I can usually get everything served to me in the first hour of the flight and still have 5 hours or so before landing.

  30. EVA doesn’t officially offer DOD. And they don’t wheel carts down the aisle. Reading all your opinions here has opened my eyes to the downside of this “luxury privilege”: the noise. Getting to sleep isn’t easy, even with Envoy reverse-herringbone seats and a pitch black cabin. Feed the bastards and shut them up, I say.

    I find that unofficially, on EVA, if I board and ask politely if they’d please hold my meal and heat it when I ask later, they happily accomodate. My flights leave Toronto at 01:40 and sometimes I just can’t find the energy to eat a feast at 3am. EVA, as ever, accomodates me.

    I’ve tried Cathay to Asia many times. Mixed gender cabin crew is a plus. The food service concept, not so much. And I have to bring my EVA pyjamas!

  31. I think this article leaves a lot to be desired. Overall, if some airlines are able to execute dine on demand with success a majority of time, there really should be more objective reasons why another airline can’t. Maybe passenger to crew ratio, number of daylight hours during a flight during which people will naturally want to eat, maybe the menu is too large, maybe the galley is too small, maybe the crew is just lazy. The article basically asks the question ‘is dine on demand for every airline’, and instead of providing an analysis on if an airline fits the bill, it questions whether dine on demand is a good concept at all.

    Please provide additional data on this if you come across it.

  32. @Jack. There is now a skyteam option to fly sfo-blr with a single stop at AMS with KLM and Jet airways. Jet airways started this route just weeks back. SFO-SIN-BLR has one leg that is disproportionately long. EK operates an A380 on this route while many other US cities only have the 777 with the terrible J seats, so this may be a comfortable option too.

  33. On flights over 10 hours there is plenty of time for the airline to do a proper service, one course at a time and not on a tray. Even in business-class.

  34. I did the Cathay dine on demand in business on one of their first tries at it out of Chicago.
    First, you wouldn’t know it was dine on demand because they didn’t tell anyone, just went around getting order like usual.
    Second, I asked for the burger instead of the regular meal and was told that it would take at least an hour to get a burger out. Fair enough. It took over an hour to get my food anyway. I was passed by for clearing multiple time, and I had to ask repeatedly for drinks. None of the FAs seemed to know what they were doing.
    I would ask for something, wait 45 minutes and not have it come so I laid down to sleep when they came by with multiple courses all at the same time.
    The FAs were really apologetic and said they were trying to adjust but it just seemed to be all over the place for service.

  35. KLM is also testing DOD om longhaul flights. First route is AMS-BKK, to be rolled out for all longhaul flights if proved succesfull. As a FB Platinum can’t say I am hopefull this will work.

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